|Norah Jones - Not Too Late|
|Music Disc Reviews Audio CD|
|Written by Charles Andrews|
|Tuesday, 01 May 2007|
release year: 2007
label: Blue Note
reviewed by: Charles Andrews
So, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately trying to hate Norah Jones. Or at least, dislike. Certainly, disrespect. Get tired of. Bored with. Catch her naked, the empress with new clothes that aren’t really there. Or if they are, maybe there are holes we didn’t notice, crooked seams, some fading colors.
I have to report, I’m not doing all that well on this project.
I got sucked in like everyone else on that first album of hers, Come Away With Me. The very first time I heard The Voice, on the radio, it was memorable. Well, not everyone went for it. If the world population is 6.5 billion, about 6,480,000,000 people did not buy her first album. That’s a fairly big number, so maybe she ain’t that hot. An awful lot of people did not think enough of that album to slap down 15 bills or so. Maybe she is being found out. (Or, maybe, some of them, you know, in drought or war-torn areas, bought food instead.) And 6,489,000,000 did not buy her second disc, Feels Like Home. Her home is now decorated with 11 Grammies, but so what? This newest release shot immediately to #1 on the world charts, but so what? Aretha has sold three times as many records as she has; even Britney, double. That’s perspective.
Still, apparently, a lot of normal folk love Norah Jones’ music. But I hang sometimes with a few not-so-normals who are very intensely, rigorously … shall we say, discerning … about music. Okay – they’re snobs. And immediately wary of anyone this popular. So if you love Norah Jones, or even like her, you better be ready to defend her.
She’s made my task easier with this album, but also exposed a major weakness. Repeated, no-distraction listenings have convinced me finally that she’s much more than just a pretty voice. Though sometimes, that’s almost enough. I don’t think there’s anything more important to the enjoyment of music than a great singer, or at least a singer you love. And that doesn’t always mean a pretty voice, but rather a voice that moves you. There’s no question Jones has a remarkable instrument, though she seems lacking ever so slightly in full emotional authority. Sometimes she seems, like an Elvis or EmmyLou, Willie, Nat “King” Cole or anyone gifted with a voice that by its very nature is infused with emotion, to be mailing it in just a little, to be letting the inherent nuance relieve her of the task of more fully inhabiting the words and story. That gripe aside, I am moved by her singing. She can turn a phrase or bend a note in such a way that you remember it, and wait for it next time around. It is pop born in jazz, precise but inventive, fascinating, gorgeous sometimes, charming, disarming, subtly and innocently sexy, entrancing, endearing, affecting. Unending delights, but no surprises. And she certainly never offends.
That plus her immense popularity raised questions. Is Norah Jones the timeless soundtrack to a breezy sunny afternoon by the lake, a one-note samba, someone who will live out her career with a string of pleasant, interchangeable albums? Then there was the impression she left as a personality when she burst so largely onto the music scene in ‘aught-two, of someone almost painfully shy, hesitant, self-effacing, overwhelmed by the speed and degree of her success after her first album’s release, and unprepared to handle the extreme life change. (Who would be?) But not the personality you would’ve expected to come up with this, just two albums later.
Her sophomore effort was a tad surprising. Feels Like Home was no big departure from the first album, but it was somewhat darker, and a little more country. Still, it felt like this was a performer who relied on guidance. The legendary Arif Mardin, who passed away last year, produced those two recordings – perhaps he was her Svengali. So Feels Like Home sales dropped off nearly 50 per cent from the first album and sold only 11 million copies – yeah, that’s only a decade’s total for a lot of top musicians considered very, very successful.
Not Too Late is not a radical departure from its predecessor either, but does demonstrate solidly that Jones is controlling her career and making her own artistic decisions, taking chances, writing her own songs and even recording them in her home studio with boyfriend/co-writer/bass player Lee Alexander producing. Through various TV interviews and the one on the accompanying DVD, one can observe that Norah seems to be not much different than when we first met her. Partly, we’ve gotten to know her better, but she also seems here to have gained some confidence and be asserting herself more as a musician with ideas. Not just a pretty voice.
Much has been made of the fact that she wrote or co-wrote everything on the album. But she co-wrote four songs on the previous disc, wrote one by herself and had the chutzpah to write lyrics to a Duke Ellington instrumental, renovating his “Melancholia” into her “Don’t Miss You At All” with appropriate and touching poetry, not exactly a timid move. And even on her debut album, scattered amongst the Hoagy Carmichael, J.D. Loudermilk and Hank Williams covers, are one co-written song and two by her alone, and one of them is “Come Away With Me,” probably most responsible for her meteoric rise.
So while we already knew she could write, recording an entire album of only your own material does make a statement. But she has also, observably and by her own recognition, progressed as a writer, so it’s not just the quantity but the quality that’s significant. Nine of the 13 songs were co-written, and I have no idea how she co-writes: is she strictly the lyricist, or the melody maker, or sharing duties in different combinations with different collaborators? The bottom line is, it’s her album and her songwriting credits and her responsibility for everything being just how she wants it. And the writing on Not Too Late is impressive.
Most of her previous authoring, as well as the songs she chose written by others, were focused on the singer’s immediate world, but now she seems to be taking an expanded philosophical view. She even gets political, twice, starting the album with “Wish I Could,” co-penned with her man Lee Alexander, a quietly wrenching tale of running into the distraught present girlfriend of a past boyfriend who has recently died, but because he was lost “in the time of war” it becomes a powerful antiwar statement. All wars, not just this one. But with “My Dear Country,” credited as a solo work, she names psychoses rather than names: noting that election day comes just a few days after Halloween, she declares “nothing is as scary as election day,” and even though “we believed in our candidate/but even more it’s the one we hate,” despairingly hoping “who knows, maybe he’s not deranged” – I don’t know, call me silly, but the first thing that pops into my mind is that she’s being specific, and timely. She ends on hopeful themes, though, after lamenting “I cherish you, my dear country/but sometimes I don’t understand/the way we play,” she sings “I love the things that you’ve given me/and most of all that I am free/to have a song that I can sing/on election day.”
An advantage of writing for yourself is that you naturally tailor the words and music to the artist you know will be singing them. Making other writers’ songs your own is its own art form, at which Jones has excelled, but this set of tunes seems even more organic, probably for that reason. Words, music, vocals, instruments and arrangements all seem so perfectly matched that every song seems easy to embrace even on the first listening. In fact, I had to google all her many odd releases (imports, expanded versions, EPs) to make sure “Thinking About You” was not a redo, it seemed so familiar the first time I heard it. An exception is “Sinkin’ Soon,” an odd little ditty featuring trombone, mandolin, pots and pans and a hybrid beast called a guitJo, a song many have called Tom Waits-like but actually Capt. Beefheart alumnus Moris Tepper was making music just like this a good 15 years ago. You think the song is odd, wait til you see the video, on the DVD in the deluxe edition.
Though not extreme, there are a lot of small musical adventures Jones takes throughout Not Too Late that add up to something. The somber theme of “Wish I Could” is conveyed with only acoustic guitars and plucked and bowed cellos; as the opening cut, it makes a musical statement. The faintly backgrounded Hammond B-3 in “Until the End” gives it a tone while nearly escaping cognition, while marimba and backwards guitar take “Not My Friend” otherworldly. On “Broken,” “Wake Me Up” and “Little Room,” Norah sets aside her various keyboards (piano, Wurlitzer, pump organ, mellotron) for acoustic and electric guitars. “My Dear Country” is pretty much her on piano except for the subtlest of barely-audible B-3 and sax in the closing verses – oh, and that carousel-like bridge three-quarters of the way through that throws in trombones and tuba with the sax and B-3 turning up the volume – for a whole 20-seconds. There’s an effective lap steel on “Wake Me Up,” and on the bridge of “Be My Somebody” it sounds like they left the studio doors open and put the electric guitar in the bathroom down the hall. “Little Room” is a funny li’l thing, romantic in a childlike way, with just bass and Norah’s acoustic guitar, and childhood friend and occasional multi-instrumentalist and backup vocalist Daru Oda adds a little Mayberry goin’-fishin’ whistling (none too skillful) at the end.
Which seems to be a good opening to make an observation that actually does comment on the quality of her work – bear with me – and is maybe even unique to Jones: “You an’ me, and/me and you/in my little room/there’s room enough for us to do/the things we like to do” is, as you first hear it, about as close as she ever comes to a sexually-tinged double entendre – and then she immediately reveals the innocent goofiness of the singer with “Oops! I hit my elbow on the doorknob/it’s right there/…by the bed/but I don’t even care.” Later she imagines that if there were a fire in her little room with the bars on the window, “we’d burn up for sure/but that’s just fine by me ’cuz/we would be together ever more.” Sheesh, is she 14, or what? There’s no arguing that Norah Jones is an exceptionally pretty, shapely young woman, but at this point I’d be shocked, shocked!, if I ever heard her spouting sexually explicit lyrics or saw her tramped up in a revealing outfit in any planned media presentation. (As close as she gets is twirling in her below-the-knee black and white-striped dress, on the insert.) With her immense fame and capital-generating possibilities, if it were going to happen, it would’ve already. It’s almost certain she’s had to resist pressure to go that route, but maybe when someone’s forcefully reminding her that sex sells, she has only to calmly point to her unbelievable sales record and show them the door. It’s not only refreshing, it’s indicative of how she is determined to remain true to herself, and that goes for the music too.
It’s all these things that add up to reveal an artist who, by her third album, has demonstrated beyond a doubt that’s she’s more than a pretty voice, pretty words, pretty keyboards, a pretty ballad, a pretty face, With the wisdom of knowing where her limited boundaries are (a little country, a little strangeness, probably never a little hip hop), she’s pushing them just a bit further each time out. And making excellent albums every step of the way. To satisfy her more excessive musical curiosities, she’s been recording with everyone from Jerry Lee Lewis to Ray Charles to the Foo Fighters to Outkast, and performing in side projects like the countrified Little Willies, Faith No More Mike Patton’s Peeping Tom and even, disguised in a blonde wig, heavy make-up, fishnets and short shorts, played guitar and sang in the tongue-in-cheek punk band El Madmo. But she seems determined to keep the Norah Jones brand pure to her vision.
That major weakness I referred to in the beginning? I’ve found this is an easy album to burn out on. It’s too easy to hear it only as background without catching the subtle stuff, and if you play it too often you may ruin it for yourself. I recommend a sliding scale: once a day when you first get it is okay, but for no longer than 10 days, then go to three or four times a week, eventually landing on once a month. Do that, and you’ll do yourself the favor of rediscovering the hidden treasures of Not Too Late on an ongoing basis.
A mix of mostly acoustic instruments played in a jazzy style, with lots and lots of space between the instruments. You can hear every cymbal brushed, every string plucked or bowed. As stated earlier, everything works together in a near-perfect blend of dynamics and acoustics applied appropriately to material, with results hard to second-guess. It seems exactly what Norah Jones must have wanted; you’re either going to love the results, or not, but it works. Her vocals are presented with absolute clarity, so you can hear the roundness and tone of even the breathed notes; to play it any other way would be an obvious blunder.
Okay, right up front: what’s with no 5.1 surround sound?!?! I know (though I don’t have it) that the previous album, Feels Like Home, came in a Deluxe Edition that did trumpet the 5.1 in big type right on the front (in addition to having three unreleased tracks from the session). Did they think it was “an experiment” that failed? Then they had the wrong producer/mixer. Not appropriate to Norah’s style? Bull. I feel cheated! Norah – we got to talk, girl. It’s artistically a cool package, very nicely designed. The DVD has an interesting enough interview with her, about 10 minutes long, that, listening between the lines, seems to confirm what the facts about her career indicate, that she’s not full of herself, appreciating her huge success while not taking it too personally, and using her power to fortify her artistic freedom and direct her career where she wants it. More interesting is the live-in-studio footage of pieces of several songs. It also has two creative and entertaining videos, for “Thinking About You” and “Sinkin’ Soon,” matching segments for the making of those videos, and one walk-in-the-woods vid for “Until the End.” Additionally, two live (Burbank rehearsal studio) performances of “Until the End“ and “Sinkin’ Soon” are included.